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Starred Review. If ever a baseball player were deemed worthy of canonization, right fielder Roberto Clemente might be the one. Jackie Robinson may have suffered greater hardships during his career, but Clemente's nobility, charity and determination make him far more appropriate for a postage stamp than a Nike commercial. After 18 distinguished seasons, the Pirate star with the astonishing throwing arm died in a 1972 plane crash while en route to deliver relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. Considering the potential for hagiography, Washington Post staffer and Clinton biographer Maraniss sticks to the facts in this respectful and dispassionate account. Clemente is a deceptively easy subject for a biographer: his acquired halo tinges past events and the accounts of his colleagues (although close friend Vic Power is frequently quoted to both admiring and frank effect). Clemente wasn't entirely virtuous—he had a temper and was sometimes given to pouting—but his altruism appears to have been a genuine product of his impoverished Puerto Rican upbringing. Maraniss deftly balances baseball and loftier concerns like racism; he presents a nuanced picture of a ballplayer more complicated than the encomiums would suggest, while still wholly deserving them. Photos.
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When Roberto Clemente died on New Year's Eve 1972 while delivering relief aid to the victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake, his legacy as both cultural and sporting icon was secured for the ages. His baseball credentials were never in doubt--he was indisputably the best right fielder of all time. He was also the first great Latin American baseball star. Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi (1999), chronicles the life story of a man who passionately valued his heritage and inspired others to do so. He championed other Latin players and used his fame to make the U.S. a more tolerant home for all Latinos, regardless of athletic abilities. Along with the inspirational and multicultural side of Clemente's story, Maraniss delivers a mother lode of wonderful baseball lore: the fact that Clemente's unorthodox "basket" catch came about as a result of playing softball as a youngster; the remarkable saga (full of bluffs and subterfuge) of how, despite being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, he came to be a Pittsburgh Pirate. Maraniss chooses his sports subjects carefully. As Lombardi represented the best of a time past, Clemente embodies the best of what we dream for the future: dignity, pride, tolerance, and an obligation to make the world a better place. Wes Lukowsky
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